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  • Writer's pictureSorina I. Crisan, PhD

Swiss Education & Hospitality Industry: Interview with Anne-Sophie Delval, PhD

How is Swiss education perceived internationally and why do hospitality schools located in Switzerland choose to capitalize on this perception? In her recently published book, Dr. Anne-Sophie Delval not only answers the aforementioned questions, but also discusses and deconstructs what the concept of ‘international,’ “really means, and what it implies for organizations and individuals.” In this interview, you will be able to learn details about Dr. Delval’s book on the internationalization of Swiss hospitality schools and the reasons for conducting research related to the Swiss education system and hospitality industry. Furthermore, Dr. Delval explains her choice of research question and design, she highlights the intriguing findings which helped guide her PhD dissertation (the precursor of the book discussed here), she defines the book’s target audience, and she addresses the main challenges and opportunities she encountered while conducting research. The article concludes with the interviewee’s brief description of her current work and her valuable advice to junior scholars who are interested in following a similar line of research and work as the one discussed in this interview.

Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD

Interview with Anne-Sophie Delval, PhD, Persuasive Discourse. Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD.
Photo of Dr. Delval’s book cover. Publisher: Éditions Alphil – Presses universitaires suisses.

Dr. Anne-Sophie Delval is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, and an Associate Member of the Swiss Elite Observatory, in Switzerland. Her current research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), is titled: “Converting International Capital: The Case of Swiss Hospitality Management Schools’ Alumni Careers.”

In your recently published book, “The Internationalization of Swiss Hospitality Schools: Attracting Wealthy Students from around the World” (original French title: L’internationalisation des écoles hôtelières suisses : attirer les étudiant.e.s fortuné.e.s du monde entier), which is based on your 2020 PhD thesis, you discuss and analyze the internationalization of Swiss Hospitality Management Schools (SHMS). When did you become interested in researching this topic and why did you choose to write a PhD thesis and a book about your findings?

I grew up in Montreux, Switzerland, where I was always surrounded by foreign students enrolled in various boarding schools and international schools. Throughout the years, I heard a lot of stories about their backgrounds and lifestyles and that sounded very fascinating to me. While I always perceived a certain social distance between the privileged young foreign people studying in my hometown and myself, from a spatial point of view, they were very close to me. For example, just by walking around the city, I could always see foreign students and I would often find myself wondering questions such as: Where did they come from? Why were they in Switzerland? How did they choose to study in Montreux? How did they end up studying in luxurious buildings with amazing views of Lake Geneva? And, lastly, what were they looking to achieve? As such, by writing this book, and particularly by writing it in French, I wanted local people living in Switzerland to be able to discover what is happening next to them within what appears to be an ‘international education bubble’ created by the Swiss Hospitality Schools.

In 2013, while I was working as a teaching assistant at University of Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, I had the liberty to choose and design my own research project. When reflecting about my research opportunities, the EHL Hospitality Business School, in Lausanne, (original title: Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne) came to my mind, although I did not personally know anyone who studied there. When informing myself about their trainings, I was impressed by: (1) the expensive fees (around 160’000.00 Swiss Francs per foreign student per training), (2) the professional appearance of the student body, and (3) the internationality of its students.

On further investigation, I also discovered the existence of other noteworthy hospitality management schools located in Switzerland, which are less mentioned by the media, such as: Glion Institute of Higher Education, Les Roches, or the Hotel Management School of Geneva.

At the time when I started my research, there was not that much analytical information available about Swiss hospitality schools, although they represented and continue to represent a substantial financial stake within the Swiss education system. And by that, I mean, at that point in time, no social scientist had ever investigated them. Therefore, I thought it could be an excellent case to be able to study mechanisms such as: the internationalisation of higher education, student migration, and social re/production in the context of globalization. Furthermore, all these social aspects were not yet well addressed in Switzerland, which made for a great research topic.

To research and write this book, you had to conduct multiple interviews. Could you please describe: What was the main research question, what research methodology/design did you employ to construct your data, and what analytical framework did you use to analyze your data?

My main research question was: What are the driving forces of the internationalized educational market in Switzerland?

Theoretically, my aim was to adapt State Nobility from Pierre Bourdieu to the current context of globalization. This meant adapting field theory to cosmopolitan sociology (inspired by Ulrich Beck and Stephen Ball) and applying it a transnational perspective. Thus, I considered Swiss Hospitality Management Schools as an educational field – located in Switzerland – in which institutions are in competition for diverse resources, in order to be attractive on the international scene. This required a three-stage research design:

1) Discovering the field of positions: How such schools differentiate themselves from each other? What are they competing for? Which one(s) appear to be the most prestigious and by what criteria? Do they own various forms and amounts of international, social, and cultural capital? Do they all have the same capability of appearing - or becoming – “international” and how?

2) Investigating the field of taken positions (French terminology: prises de position): How do staff and students perceive this educational market in comparison with others? How do they make sense of the position occupied by their school (i.e.: being part of the “elite”, the “international” or of the “hard workers”)? How do they deal with their school’s reputation in different spaces (academic, professional, or even geographical)?

3) Examining the field of dispositions of agents involved in such educational market: What are the profiles of the students enrolling in these programs? Does this international education system (or field) attract people who are already “international” and, if so, in what ways? What are their socioeconomic and academic backgrounds? Are certain profiles more present in certain schools and, if so, why?

To do so, I used a mixed research design methodology and I collected primary data. To be more precise: I constructed a database about all the Swiss Hospitality Management Schools, I created an online survey which was filled out by 381 students, and I interviewed around 50 people (such as: executives, staff, alumni, and students).

Could you please address what were some of the main findings of your research? Further, did you encounter surprises along the way?

My research revealed that Swiss Hospitality Management Schools were already “international” before it was “a thing” to be perceived as such. Nevertheless, they have seized the opportunity of “internationalization” in different ways, depending on their history and resources.

For example, created in 1893, the EHL Hospitality Business School, in Lausanne, is a pioneer in its field, due to its seniority and uniqueness. It started attracting international students in the middle of the 20th century. This elite institution, with the highest admissions’ requirements, characterizes itself as being both Swiss and “international.” On the contrary to this institution, other schools are confined to a well-defined student recruitment geographical territory and are either: (1) international due to their choice of English as their language of instruction or (2) local (covering Switzerland and the neighboring countries) because they choose to teach in French, Italian, and/or German.

The internationalization of higher education therefore unfolds differently depending on: (1) the institution’s initial recognition on the national scene and (2) its mission.

For example, the “leading” international hospitality schools have a great capacity to expand and grow, by opening new campuses in reputable educational locations abroad, thus attracting more privileged students and obtaining prestigious accreditations. These institutions remain in a “virtuous circle” while, on the contrary, the so called “challengers” are more limited and might use questionable means to ensure their economic survival. For instance, some schools are vague about the international recognition of their degrees and the actual diversity of their student body. Further, they work with recruiters who might even hide or lie to prospective students about the existence of other hospitality educational opportunities (i.e., schools) in Switzerland, in order to be able to secure their commissions from the schools they represent. Therefore, depending on their socio-economic backgrounds and/or their country of origin, students end up having unequal access to the most academically recognized Swiss hospitality schools.

Another main result is that there are three types of students enrolled in the hospitality education system in Switzerland.

The first type of students inherited their cosmopolitan capital in various forms. To elaborate, in Swiss Hospitality Management Schools, you will be able to find the heirs of the so called, Global Middle Class, whose parents are internationally mobile executives or managers, because they worked and continue to work in various countries throughout their careers. As such, these students speak multiple languages, have lived in multiple countries, and have studied in various international schools. When studying in Switzerland, these students continue to capitalize on their internationality and mobility, because they are submerged in a familiar education environment.

On the contrary, the second type of students are those who had their roots in one single country during their childhood (such as, France, China, Vietnam, or Russia), have never lived abroad before arriving in Switzerland, and have gained their secondary education among their “national” peers. Thus, coming to Switzerland for their higher education is a first step towards internationalizing their profile and experiencing “the world”.

Then, the third type of students is characterized by the presence of local students (the Swiss residents) who possess a form of cosmopolitanism which is not yet perceived as “international.” For example, they come from a mixed family background with parents belonging to different national, cultural, or even linguistic origins. Consequently, they speak several languages and are attracted to the international environment provided by these schools. They take the opportunity to become “international” at home (in Switzerland) and maybe engage in a mobile career afterwards. By doing so, they obtain a certification and thus “institutionalize” their cosmopolitan capital which helps them to start being perceived as “international,” which can help lead them to various professional opportunities in the future.

Given your characterization and identification of three types of students enrolled in the Swiss hospitality education system,what do you perceive to be the major reason(s) behind choosing such an education, in Switzerland? For instance, one point that I find fascinating is the different perception that people living within versus outside of Switzerland have about private Swiss education. During a February 2022 talk you gave at the Swiss Elite Observatory (Obelis), at University of Lausanne, you stated that Swiss parents typically enroll their children to study in a private school if their children are failing the Swiss public education system. Whereas parents from outside of Switzerland send their children to study in Swiss private schools if they are highly gifted or if they belong to some of the most affluent families. If that is indeed the case, could you please elaborate on this finding/juxtaposition?

Such diversity within the same student body complexifies the interpretation of the choice of an “international” education.

As I explained during my presentation held at Obelis, for some students, being able to enroll in these Swiss schools may represent a second chance at academic success if they underperformed academically in their country of origin, or even in Switzerland.

For some other students, for example those coming from France, getting their relatives to accept and understand their desire to work in the hospitality industry may sometimes be a challenge because it generally offers low social and economic rewards. On the contrary to this point, for students who are originally from countries such as, China and Vietnam, coming to study in Switzerland, a country that is perceived as being wealthy, secure, and multicultural, can represent something prestigious. In this later case, studying in the Swiss schools is expected to offer these individuals a distinctive position in a booming hospitality industry.

Briefly stated, it is essential to take into consideration the local and national spaces from which an education decision is made. The symbolic values of the sending and receiving countries are at play, thus representing unequal opportunities for distinction.

While conducting your research, did you encounter some challenges, and if so, how did you overcome them?

One main challenge while doing research about expensive and prestigious institutions is that generally they are not open to sociological analysis. The most commercial schools ghosted me because they were not interested in participating in my research. Other schools gave me very controlled access to their institution. On the contrary, local smaller and less renowned hotel schools were delighted to be able to showcase the trainings they offer.

I realized that I had to become creative and proactive in order to determine different ways to contact staff, alumni, and students. At the time when I conducted my fieldwork, I was a 26-year-old Eurasian woman and I looked like any other prospective student interested in learning about these schools. Because of this fact, I think that I was not perceived as being a potential threat when conducting interviews and some executives did not take me “seriously,” which ultimately enabled me to get very rich interviews. Furthermore, the age-proximity I had to the students, helped me obtain very honest testimonials.

Currently, you are an associate member with Obelis and you are working on completing a two-year fellowship with Prof. Claire Maxwell, at University of Copenhagen. You were awarded this fellowship from the ​Swiss National Science Foundation to: “investigate career and mobility patterns from hospitality management graduates, leaving Switzerland” and “analyse transnational social trajectories after experiencing international higher education.” Could you please briefly describe the stage of the research you are at and let us know if and/or how your PhD work is informing your current research? Are you planning to further elaborate the findings from your recent book and create future related research avenues?

During my PhD, I discovered that Swiss Hospitality Management Schools train very well-rounded, emotionally intelligent, and flexible managers, who are used to multicultural environments. Their profiles are valued in a wide range of sectors (such as, in the operations side of the food and beverage sectors but, also in marketing, revenue management, real estate development) and various other industries (such as, consulting, banking, luxury, etc.)

For my postdoctoral project, my aim is to investigate how such international cultural capital is valued in different countries and in various career paths. I am now ending my fieldwork and I have interviewed almost 60 alumni working in China (Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, etc.), the United Arab Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), and in France (Paris).

The schools I am currently researching claim that entering the international job market will be easy for their alumni. However, my preliminary findings show that graduates face various challenges depending on their citizenship and socioeconomic origins. What is more surprising is that some Swiss degrees in the hospitality management field have unequal convertibility and rewards in different parts of the world. This raises many questions which are aligned with my research interests, such as: Who is able to become an “international manager”? Where? In which sectors or companies? What are the cosmopolitan skills that are really valued by the labor market? Which language skills are valued most and where? What multicultural knowledge is useful in graduates’ daily work? Do they need to be transnationally mobile to become “international” managers?

In a broader perspective, my goal as a sociologist is to deconstruct what “international” really means and what it implies for organizations and individuals. I want to untangle the spatial, economic, racial, and symbolic mechanisms at play in the unequal distribution of resources and rewards, within the context of globalization.

Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young practitioners interested in following a similar line of work such as yours?

My advice is: You do not have to already be “international,” to be interested in international issues!

When I started my journey as a PhD student, I only spoke French and I decided to improve my English bit by bit. I gradually started to do interviews in English in order to get access to a more diverse sample. Then, I enrolled in English courses, went to a few conferences abroad, and wrote my first paper for an international journal, with my supervisor’s help. Subsequently, I submitted my first proposal in English to do research abroad. I still surround myself with native speakers who are supportive of me and who help me improve my English skills, such as Claire Maxwell. Becoming an “international researcher” is a long-term process and obtaining English proficiency may be a constant work in progress for non-native speakers.

Now, that I am working in an English-speaking academic environment, my level of English is improving with each day. Of course, that I sometimes have hesitations and I still make mistakes, but I am perfectly capable of making myself understood and, most importantly, I can conduct my own interviews in English.

Furthermore, I am finding out that my initial limitations are now turning out to be a strength because they help me to better understand the transformations and obstacles my respondents have gone through, such as: moving to another country, getting used to it, learning and speaking another language.

The PhD is a time during which you can, and should, learn new skills of all kinds. Do not idealize anyone and be proud of where you come from. You do not have to be perfect, and you do not need to already know everything. You have the time to try to improve your skills and in time, you will become better at whatever you choose to do. All the skills and competences you will choose to gain will help lead you to new opportunities in your career.

Thank you for reading.

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Sannia Abdullah Close, PhD. Interview for Persuasive Discourse, by Sorina I. Crisan PhD. Photo from the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) webpage.

Anne-Sophie Delval, PhD

Postdoctoral Researcher

Associate Member

Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Delval’s research?

You may follow Dr. Delval’s work on LinkedIn and Twitter.

To learn more about the topics covered in this interview, please consult the following publications.

Bühlmann, Felix and Anne-Sophie Delval, 2020, “Strategies of Social (Re)Production within International Higher Education: The Case of Swiss Hospitality Management Schools”, Higher Education, Vol. 79(3), 477-495. Available online here.

Bassin, Aline (21 mars 2022), «Anne-Sophie Delval: «Pour l’instant, la Suisse reste considérée comme le meilleur pays pour se former dans l’hôtellerie»», Le Temps. Article available here.

Illustrations by: The main article photo showcases the upper side of Dr. Delval’s recently publish book. The profile photo included on this page was made available by the interviewee.

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